Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Grieve: I take the view that the hon. Gentleman's amendment might be otiose, because new subsection (6C) makes pretty clear the purposes for which the fingerprints may be taken. The reason for my probing amendment was that I wanted to know a bit more about the system for taking a fingerprint other than at the police station. I, too, was involved with the Constitutional Reform Bill yesterday and had no opportunity of viewing the technology, so I note the Minister's reassurance on that point.

There is something slightly odd about the provision. I can never remember who served on which Committee, so the Minister might not recollect that some time ago we departed from the old rule that one's fingerprint could be retained for police identification purposes only if one had been convicted of an offence. We changed, for reasons that have always caused me some slight concern, to the principle that if one were arrested and fingerprinted at a police station and charged, one's fingerprints could be retained even if one was subsequently acquitted or the proceedings were discontinued. The current position is, I think, that they can be retained if one is arrested and taken to a police station.

That is gradually contributing towards the state building up a databank of fingerprints that will include the prints of individuals who have never been convicted of any criminal offence. What strikes me as quite surprising, in view of the Government's past record in this matter, is that, having made provision for fingerprints being taken for identification purposes at a place other than a police station and without arrest taking place, the Minister has felt sufficiently squeamish to say that fingerprints thus taken will not be retained. I said to whichever Minister it was who took through the last Bill in respect of which we considered fingerprints—the Criminal Justice Act 2003, I think—that the arbitrary nature of fingerprint-taking had got to such a point that there ought to be a special ceremony at the age of 16 where one had to present oneself at a police station and hand over one's fingerprints and DNA for the common good.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Precisely what my hon. Friend is now railing against is being introduced in the Committee next door: it is called an national identity card. Not only fingerprints, but biometric details will be stored on a central register held by the state.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is, of course, quite right. That is why I highlight the slight oddity of a circumstance in which the state lays its hands on one's fingerprints by the roadside when checking your identity, but the Government, in their wisdom, have decided that those fingerprints should not be retained. I find that quite surprising. I suppose I should welcome
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it, because I do not want the powers of the state to be extended further, but I am interested in ascertaining the Government's reasoning on the issue.

Mr. McWalter: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: However, before I find out the Minister's reasoning, I will find out the reasoning of the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead.

4.15 pm

Mr. McWalter: In the absence of the universal taking of fingerprints, retaining prints is particularly odious and invidious when people have been falsely accused. That happened to one of my constituents, who suffered the trauma of being arrested, followed only later by a letter of apology from the bonkers lady who had made the accusation. My constituent's prints remain on file. She would not mind if everyone's prints were on file, but she objects very strongly to her prints being a record of that terrible and traumatic event. Perhaps we should think about what we should do in the next phase of the process.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I hope that he will not take it amiss if I say that I am all the more grateful because I have not previously received much support from Labour Members when I have made such representations. The Government's approach has been that it is right to expand the national database, that that database helps in the prevention of crime and that it is therefore appropriate to retain the fingerprints of those who have not been convicted. That view causes me considerable anxiety. I suspect that there is quite a large and growing number of cases such as the hon. Gentleman cited. The victims of the process—that is what they are—will feel very unhappy that they are being treated as second-class citizens without justification.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman: if the necessity for such a system is so great, it would be better—without necessarily introducing identity cards, about which I have some serious reservations—to be honest and say that everyone has to supply their fingerprints so that they can be checked in the event of their being suspected of having committed a criminal offence. I am not sure that I would be happy with that situation, but I would be more comfortable with it than I am with the current one. I am fascinated to hear the hon. Gentleman's story, because it chimes exactly with other stories that I have heard about people who feel that they have been victimised by the process. That is why, as I said at the start, I am interested to hear the Minister's reasons why if people are stopped at the roadside and the opportunity arises to get their prints, their prints will be excluded from the process. Why should they be treated differently from someone who is arrested but never charged?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sorry that we are re-rehearsing all these arguments, but it has given the Minister time to think and obtain all the answers. In that sense, the Committee will benefit from the rehearsal of the arguments and the debate.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield made it clear that our amendment No. 304 is probing. The proposals are designed to prevent police officers and CSOs from having the ability to take a suspect's fingerprints at the site of their arrest or detention. As has been said, fingerprints can currently be taken only in a police station. We want to probe whether CSOs will have access to the national automated fingerprint identification system referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon. If they have such access, there will be concerns about what access they have to other personal information, especially if individuals' biometric information is stored centrally at some future point. We have already heard reference to such an arrangement in relation to identify cards.

The amendment relates to the need to restrict CSOs in their ability to take fingerprints and impressions of footwear. Such restrictions should be applied on civil liberty grounds and on the ground that a CSO is less experienced to make judgements when taking fingerprints and impressions of footwear, which could provoke offence from the innocent victim, especially when the CSO is dealing with people from ethnic minorities, children or other vulnerable sensitive groups. Such criticism and related damage to police-community relations could increase if CSOs used the powers in an unreasonable fashion. Perhaps the Minister can give us some answers as to how she expects the powers to be used, particularly in relation to CSOs.

Ms Blears: The primary purpose of clause 108 is to try to provide a quick way to help the police to establish a suspect's identity, but amendment No. 188 would restrict the use of fingerprints taken away from a police station, and the police would lose the chance of detecting more crime. When the technology is fully developed, when the police go into the NAFIS—national automated fingerprint identification system—database, any new fingerprints will be subject to a speculative search against the database of fingerprint information recovered from crime scenes. We are not at that stage yet, but we envisage that that could be done in future. Where a match is found it might lead to a suspect being arrested for another, earlier offence that might not otherwise have been detected.

The aim is to ensure that we get the balance right between giving the police the power to take fingerprints using technology, trying to match those fingerprints to enable them to detect as much crime as they can and taking account of concern about protecting the civil liberties of the individuals involved, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield.

I was asked about an apparent inconsistency. When people who are arrested, taken to a police station and charged with an offence are subsequently acquitted, their fingerprints are retained. He wanted to know why we do not propose to retain the fingerprints acquired in relation to the provisions before us. The answer is that we have exercised a judgment; fingerprints will be
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taken earlier in the criminal chain of events, when the constable has reasonable grounds for suspecting that someone might be involved in an offence. On that basis, we made the fine judgment that we would not seek to retain the fingerprints because the intervention comes earlier than if the power of arrest had been exercised, the person taken to a police station and charged and the charge proceeded with.

Mr. McWalter: As we are all concerned about those who are victims of malicious and nefarious practices, I wish to emphasise to my hon. Friend that false accusation is one of the most maleficent ways of destroying someone's life. It is vital that a false accusation is put clearly into the system as such, and that all trace of such an accusation is withdrawn. In the case I mentioned to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, I naturally sought from the area commander of police an apology for my constituent's wrongful arrest, but the fingerprint still lies on file for far too long as a register of what was a very traumatic event for my constituent. I urge my hon. Friend to give proper weight in her deliberations to false accusation.

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